Tag Archives: 2010

The Imaginary Forest: Cultural Learnings in 2010

The Imaginary Forest: A Cultural New Year

January 1st, 2011

Starting a blog is a lot like playing pretend. Just as you have to pretend that you’re in the middle of an imaginary, magical forest fighting some unknown evil, your plastic sword a piece of forged steel, you sort of have to imagine that there’s someone out there reading. Before you ever receive your first comment, you need to imagine someone out there who might write that comment. Before you ever recognize that first regular reader who keeps coming back, you need to imagine that someone will come in the first place.

Cultural Learnings, for quite some time, felt like a form of pretend: I was a pretend television critic, a blogger who spent his free time doing what critics do. While we sometimes associate pretend with our childhood, and our obsession with the imaginary and the escape from reality it offers, it can easily extend into adulthood. We are still capable of aspiring to things, and sometimes we need to stretch “reality” in order to keep our goals even vaguely within reach. For me, this blog was an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in ways which went beyond forcing my English professors to allow me to write about it, a chance to at least pretend to be part of a broader community of like-minded people when I was instead surrounded by people who thought I was obsessive (which, while not untrue, was still somewhat marginalizing).

And just like when we play pretend, there are moments in blogging where a brief brush with reality invades the imaginary: there’s something visceral about swinging a plastic sword and colliding with a nearby tree, just as there’s something visceral about finding your post on the front page of Digg – back when, you know, Digg was relevant – or receiving a particularly intriguing comment. They’re the moments that keep you playing along, the moments which start to make you think that maybe pretend could become reality with time.

For a few years, Cultural Learnings sat in this liminal – I imagine this is a cheap pop among regular readers at this point – state. There have been readers, regular readers even, for a few years, and 2008 and 2009 each brought their own brushes with respectability. I’ve been incredibly grateful for all of this, and have never felt as if the blog necessarily needed to be more popular (it’s not as if it’s making me any money) or more “real.” The truth is that the blog has always been a sort of personal exercise, an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in a way which went beyond the living room (or, in some cases, the classroom), and so the occasional comment and the stimulating conversation which followed were more a bonus than anything else.

And yet in 2010 things really did change. I don’t feel as if I did anything different: there’s nothing I can really point to that led to any sort of shift in the blog’s status, no stroke of genius or groundbreaking discovery to be found. However, as I went on fighting my way through the magical forest, the world did become real: it became a group of dedicated and intelligent Whedonites, it became generous and supportive colleagues within both academic and critical realms, and it became an “audience” of informed viewers of television who wanted to join in on the conversation. Over the past year, it felt as if everything fell into place: while this has always been something I enjoyed immensely, perhaps explaining why I was so willing to keep doing it for free, there was something immensely gratifying about receiving the kind of feedback that I had imagined there might one day be, and to get the opportunities that I always imagined might come.

As the year comes to a close, and a new year begins, I want to thank everyone who has been a part of this new reality – this includes those who gave me those opportunities, those who promoted the blog to their own readers, those who sent me kind emails, those who commented, those who follow me on Twitter, those who simply read the blog, or those who got to this post by Googling “forged steel + magical forest.” It is my plan to keep fighting my way through the forest in the year ahead, and I hope that you’ll continue to join me on this adventure…which, when I think about it, almost feels more like fantasy when grounded in reality than when simply a figment of my imagination.

Happy New Year to you and yours,

Myles

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “Duets” (Glee)

“Duets”

Aired: October 12th, 2010

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list, click here.]

I have written more about Glee this year than probably any other show – it’s the only network series other than The Office which I reviewed on a weekly basis, a fact which sometimes might seem at odds with my generally critical approach to television. Sometimes, we associate reviewing with appreciation: we write about Mad Men because we love the show and think it deserving of detailed analysis.

And yet, for me, reviewing is about more than just appreciation (as my readers at The A.V. Club have discovered whenever it is suggested that I am unfit to review The Office since I have fallen out of love with the show). Reviewing a television series is about the search for understanding, dissecting our own appreciation or lack of appreciation for something in order to better understand how it fits into television as a whole. I may no longer love The Office, but I really enjoy writing about it, as I want to understand why I fell out of love, and where the show might go from here in response to a general sense of criticism stemming from a weak sixth season and the impending departure of Steve Carell.

I review Glee because it’s a show that I think needs to be talked about in order to understand what it’s trying to accomplish. Something like The 3 Glees theory is not intended to condemn the series, or even define the series; instead, Todd’s theory offers an explanation for why some viewers may find the series erratic, and why some of its characterization may deemed inconsistent by finding three distinct authorial voices amidst the series. I write about Glee not because it’s one of the best shows on television – it didn’t come close to making any lists I made relating to that subject – but because I really enjoy exploring why it’s not (as opposed to simply how it’s not).

And it’s something that I feel reached its apex with “Duets,” the series’ finest episode over the course of the past year. After spending most of 2010 picking apart why it is that Glee failed to live up to its potential, I found myself standing face-to-face with an honest-to-goodness, and actually honest, episode of television that I’d be willing to put among the year’s best. Perhaps it was just the element of surprise, the novelty of suddenly having to write about how much I unabashedly enjoyed an episode of the show, but as the year has lingered “Duets” has remained in my head not unlike a catchy song; accordingly, it rounds out my Top 10 episodes of 2010.

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “The Suitcase” (Mad Men)

“The Suitcase”

Aired: September 5th, 2010

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]

The atypical nature of nearly every episode on this list was not really something I planned, but “The Suitcase” sort of feels like the apex of that particular trend. On the one hand, it’s everything you expect from a Mad Men episode: it’s moody, it’s emotional, and it features two amazing performances from Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. This is nothing out of the ordinary, and in those terms the episode is par for the course as far as Mad Men‘s “formula” for great television.

However, from the perspective of story and character this is anything but typical. Mad Men‘s entire fourth season was built around the differences between appearances and reality, of the way in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had to invent an imaginary second floor in order to convince clients they were the right agency for the job, and “The Suitcase” makes the logical leap to explicitly connecting this to Don Draper’s personal subterfuge. In an intense battle with the most important female presence of his present, he reveals the wounds felt by the loss of the most important female presence in his past, and the result is perhaps the year’s finest hour of dramatic programming.

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “A Study in Pink” (Sherlock)

“A Study in Pink”

Aired: July 25th, 2010 (BBC)

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]

In making my various lists, it was difficult to determine just exactly what Sherlock is. I decided at a certain point that TV Movies/Miniseries wouldn’t be included in my lists, which means that Temple Grandin and The Pacific will just have to settle for their respective Emmy Awards, and yet what do we call Sherlock? Sold as part of Masterpiece Theater in the United States, and yet very much sold more as a series in Britain (and Canada as well, more or less), its weekly format suggest a short-run series while its running times relate more to Prime Suspect or, to use an American example, Tom Selleck’s Jesse Stone movies.

However, whatever term we end up using to define Sherlock, I’m comfortable considering “A Study in Pink” as a 90-minute pilot for a television series, and thus comfortable with considering “A Study in Pink” one of the 10 best episodes of the year. It’s the one installment in the series which feels as if it needs its running time, using the additional room to great effect in drawing its two lead characters, finding its point of view, and creating a charming yet haunting world in which Sherlock Holmes can enter the twenty-first century.

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My Top 10 TV Series of 2010

My Top 10 TV Series of 2010

December 23rd, 2010

I wasn’t going to make this list.

I did a Top 15 shows as part of The A.V. Club’s Top 25 Shows of 2010 list – which is really fantastic, and features my writeups on United States of Tara and Cougar Town – earlier this month, so I technically thought about what my Top 10 was, but looking back on it I didn’t like it. Knowing that the list was going to be aggregated, I think I steered clear of series I knew didn’t have a chance, or at the very least ranked them lower than I might have otherwise, and the result was a list that wasn’t wrong so much as it was unrepresentative of a broader view of the year in television.

And yet, since I have this particular outlet and have been in a list-making mode of late, I did put together a Top 10. It’s largely the same, although I’ve made a few changes to make it slightly more representative. This does not imply that series were elevated above their station in order to add a sense of diversity: there is no hierarchy here, and I consider these 20 series to be on more or less similar levels (outside of those shows which I clearly label within the writeups as the finest within their respective genres, which should not come as a surprise to anyone).

And I like the sense of diversity. These shows aired in different countries, at different times of year, and on a wide range of networks, and represent the ten shows which make me very glad to have been both obsessed with and paid to write about/study television in the past year.

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010 – “Fly” (Breaking Bad)

“Fly”

Aired: May 23rd, 2010

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]

When I first noted that I was limiting this list to a single episode per series, someone (it was either Jeremy Mongeau or Timothy Yenter – you should be following both) noted on Twitter something approximating “Heh, you should pick “Fly” to screw with people’s heads.” I should have saved the tweet, because I had already decided on “Fly” at that point, and got a good chuckle out of it.

I am aware that not everyone will agree with this choice. Those paying close attention may have noticed that, in going in chronological order, I passed over the sheer intensity of “One Minute,” and in picking “Fly” I’m ignoring the stunning pair of “Half Measures” and “Full Measure.” I love all of these episodes, just as I loved Breaking Bad’s third season as a whole, and yet some part of me gravitates to “Fly.”

You may have also noticed that I am attracted to episodes which are somewhat different – in fact, to this point, everything but “Sweetums” could be defined as distinctly atypical for the show in question, suggesting that I’m easily distracted by gimmicks. And yet with “Fly” the gimmick is the lack of distraction, the degree to which the show is stripped down to its most basic qualities in an effort to find something that might have otherwise gone unseen. The result is a fascinating glimpse at what it means to be contained, what it means to be contaminated, and definitive proof that Breaking Bad is simultaneously one of the darkest and one of the most hilarious shows on television.

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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (Party Down)

“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”

Aired: May 21st, 2010

[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]

Along with Better Off Ted, I find it’s easy to forget about Party Down. Its short ten-episode seasons mean that it airs during a very concentrated period of time, and the transience of all but its central characters means that it doesn’t have quite the same cumulative impact of other series. Combine with the fact that the show did take a bit of time to get itself settled following the exit of Jane Lynch and the arrival of Megan Mullally, and that the show was sadly canceled earlier this year, you have a show which might not immediately spring to mind as a 2010 highlight.

However, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” has resonated with me more than the series itself, for reasons which largely relate to its structural distinctiveness. You’ll find that this is a consistent criteria for a list like this one: rather than leaning towards prototypical episodes of a series (like, for example, Constance’s wedding in the case of Party Down) I tend to lean towards those which are trying something different. In this case, “Birthday” is both one of the series’ most postmodern episodes (what with Guttenberg, he who has been elevated by the Stonecutters, playing a version of himself) and one of its most naturalistic, with the caterers becoming partygoers in their own right. It is silly, as the show often was, but it leans more heavily on a version of reality which I found compelling and, more importantly, resonant.

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